Down Dog is to me one of the most emblematic Yoga poses. Adho Mukha Svanasana helps to stretch and strengthen the whole body, perfectly balancing the upper and lower parts in an inverted V-shape posture, like a dog that stretches himself after a nap.
If you practice Yoga, especially Ashtanga, you must have noticed that all the sequences start and end in either Tadasana or Downward-facing Dog. This is because of the countless benefits it provides, that we are going to describe later, in the benefits session.
Just let me say that I’m extremely grateful to this asana because it helped me recover fully from a muscular sprain in my back thigh which prevented me from training and practicing smoothly for six months!
So thanks, Adho Mukha Svanasana and thank you, Yoga!
In doing Down Dog, your body resembles an inverted V-shape. Take your hands shoulder-width apart and your feet hips-width apart. Sspread your fingers, trying to have the indexes or middle fingers parallel to the edges of your mat.
Arms are straight and strong, to sustain 50% of your bodyweight. Shoulders must be open and relaxed, not tensed, with shoulder blades pushing towards the lower back. Beware of opening your chest while keeping your ribs closed towards your breastbone: ribs should not fluctuate, but expand as you inhale!
Down-dog requires a light anteversion of the pelvis to allow for hamstrings lengthening, but at the same time the coccyx is rooted down to avoid arching the lower spine and help maintaining control of the core.
To begin, you can keep your legs bent, detaching your heels from the ground; then start “walking you dog”, which is a funny way to say you can alternate one bent and one straight leg, trying to touch the ground with one heel at a time. When you feel ready and warm enough, stretch both legs, and maybe place both feet on the ground. Legs sustain 50% of your bodyweight.
Remember: always take your time and do not rush into the final version of the asana!
VARIATION: THREE-LEGGED DOWN DOG
For an extra stretch of your hamstrings, lift one leg up as high as you can, keeping your hips squared (hips and back leg’s knee pointing the floor).
Let’s say you are lifting the left leg: first thing to do to ease your balance is stepping your right foot slightly to your left, approximately on your medial plane. Avoid tilting your pelvis to the left: your iliac crests (the bones by your sides) should keep pointing to the ground.
In this position, you will feel an extra stretch of the right hamstrings and, if you focus on lifting the back leg, you’ll also tone up your glutes.
Three-legged Down Dog is very common in Vinyasa Flow Yoga: the lifted leg steps forward between the hands and from here it is possible to create a great variety of sequences.
BENEFITS AND SYMBOLIC MEANING
Down Dog’s benefits are really innumerable!
To begin with, on the physical level, it stretches the whole body, especially spine and hamstrings, and helps toning up shoulders, arms and legs!
Being a basic inverted pose -that by definition reverse the action of gravity on the body- Down Dog increases the flow of blood to the upper body, which takes pressure away from the heart to the brain, with beneficial effects including the reduction of stress, anxiety and depression.
On an emotional level in fact, the inversion involves looking at things from a different perspective, watching from another point of view, maybe outside of the box. This is especially helpful in difficult moments of our life, when everything seems to go wrong, or when we have to face difficult choices.
Downward-facing pose has taken this name from the resemblance of the pose to a dog stretching deeply as he wakes up. On the spiritual level, this symbolizes for humans a moment dedicated to turning inward, connecting to one’s own center, finding balance and connection with our inner Self and with the outside world. The balance between upper and lower body is in fact metaphor of the balance between universal principles such as individual and universal, feminine and masculine, hot and cold, sun and moon and so on.